The Shot Behind the Shot: Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985)

Behind the scenes of The Stuff

(Above) Behind the scenes of a practical effect from The Stuff (1985), a sci-fi/horror satire about a deadly dessert written, directed and produced by the late great Larry Cohen. Cohen passed away Saturday at the age of 77. Though he never quite received the plaudits of George Romero, Cohen also specialized in B-movies laced with social commentary. Here’s Cohen on the subtext of The Stuff, from an interview with Diabolique Magazine.

Diabolique: Some of your films from the ‘70s and ‘80s reflect New York as a corrupt, dangerous place. Were there any notable events that occurred in the city back then that had an impact on you?

Cohen: It wasn’t just New York. Things were going on all over the country and the world that I wanted to try and deal with in my films.  Take The Stuff, which was about products being sold on the market that kill people. There are still so many products like that being sold today. In those days you still had cigarettes being advertised on television. Nowadays it’s not cigarettes, but it’s medication that’ll probably kill you just as fast.  As a matter of fact, every time they advertise a different pill of some kind they have a disclaimer afterward telling you all the side effects — like death. So, The Stuff was an allegory for consumerism in America and the fact that big corporations will sell you anything to get your money, even if it’ll kill you.

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Interview: Russian Doll cinematographer Chris Teague


Chris Teague (Obvious Child, Landline) talks going back to Red for Russian Doll, futzing with split diopters, and the difficulty of balancing a personal life with a TV series schedule in my latest interview for Filmmaker Magazine.

Here’s an excerpt, with Teague discussing his use of Leica Summilux lenses.

Filmmaker: You owned a set of Cooke Speed Panchros for years, but for Russian Doll you went with Leica Summilux lenses.

Teague: Yeah, I shot almost everything on vintage lenses before Russian Doll. They didn’t feel appropriate for this except for the flashback sequences in episode seven, which we shot on Super Baltars. This felt like a modern, contemporary, hyper-real landscape and I loved the idea of having super fast lenses that I could shoot wide open all the time. The concept in my head, which is maybe too literal, was that Nadia was out of step with her world, and if we used fast lenses with very shallow depth of field she’d always feel like she was popping out of her background. I really fell in love with how those lenses look. The wide lenses [have minimal distortion], so we could do some things on super wide lenses. I shot a couple of scenes on a 16mm lens and I never would’ve done something like that before. I love a wide lens where you have that incredible open field of view, but you’re not so distracted by the way it’s warping the space. The Leicas are fantastic lenses. They’re also small and light, so we could keep the camera’s [footprint] smaller. That was a plus when shooting in tiny New York locations.

The Shot Behind the Shot – Chinatown (1974)

On the set of Chinatown

American Cinematographer recently shared its original story on 1974’s Chinatown, which was penned by the film’s director of photography John A. Alonzo (The Magnificent Seven, Scarface, Harold and Maude). Alonzo took over for Stanley Cortez two weeks into filming.

Here’s Alonzo on pulling off the film’s final long take, which was shot handheld and included putting a hat on the camera to disguise its shadow:

“A shot like that isn’t easy to pull off. First of all, there’s no room for the assistant to follow focus, because the camera is surrounded by the actors and extras. There’s no place to put lights on them, because when you have a camera that is that close, with a 40mm lens and an actor who is two feet away from you, your own camera would cast a shadow on the actor if you put any lights behind it. To solve the lighting problem, I mounted the little Obie light next to the lens, ran the wire down to my feet and taped it so that Earl Gilbert could keep his eye on it constantly and keep it up. We pre-checked the exposure wherever possible.

The next problem was that of following focus. Well, relying on my experience as a documentary cameraman, I asked permission of the union and they allowed me to operate the camera on that shot myself, because I can do that sort of thing. The next problem was what to do about the damned camera shadow. Roman came up with an idea. He said: “Put a hat on the camera. You’ll see a shadow if you look at the picture closely, but it will look like a hat shadow.” We put a hat right over the Obie light, so that any lights that hit me as I was panning around, cast a shadow that looked like somebody’s hat.

The scene was shot in very close quarters. The actors attacked. I say “attacked” because that’s literally what they did. They came right at the lens and I whipped down to Faye Dunaway, then I whipped up to John Huston, who was crying over the death. I panned over to Perry Lopez, the detective, then panned over to Nicholson, who said a line, then panned back to Lopez. Roman has since put a cut in there, but originally it was intended to be the one continuous shot. Lopez said: “Get out of here, Gittes.” As Nicholson’s partners took him away, I followed them slightly, then walked to my right and climbed onto the platform of the Chapman crane. They released it and I started going up in the air. The whole thing was hand-held and I couldn’t have shot it at all in sync-sound if it hadn’t been for the Panaflex. It’s an amazing shot, if I say so myself, and I wish it could have been used in its entirety instead of being cut.”

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Frame by Frame – BlacKkKlansman (2018)

CinematographerChayse Irvin (imdb link) (official site)
DirectorSpike Lee (imdb link)
Aspect Ratio2.39
DistributorFocus Features; Universal
GenreDrama; Period 1970s; Best Picture Nominee
CamerasPanaflex Millennium XL2, Arricam Lite, Aaton Penelope, Arriflex SR3 (16mm)
LensesSpherical; Zeiss Super Speeds MKII, Zeiss Master Primes, Panavision Ultra and Super Speeds, Panavision PVintage
Format  35mm; 16mm
Film StocksKodak Vision3 250D 5207, Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, Kodak Eastman Double-X Black & White Negative Film 5222 and 7222, Kodak Ektachrome 100D
Production info – 31 days of principal photography

Clink on any link to see similar frames from other films.

Eye Lights
Car Shots
High and Low Angles
Two Shots
Three Shots
Low Key Lighting
Police Station
Phone Calls

The Movie
Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s. The unlikely undercover mission began with Stallworth establishing phone contact posing as an interested new member, first with the local chapter and eventually with the organization’s “executive director” David Duke (played by Topher Grace). The sting ultimately became a two-man operation – with Stallworth (played by John David Washington) handling the phone calls and fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) standing in for Stallworth for the face-to-face interactions.

The film earned Spike Lee his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Continue Reading ›

Pic of the Day – Boris Grinsson’s French poster for The Man from Laramie (1955)

(Above) French artist Boris Grinsson’s take on The Man from Laramie (1955), my favorite of the five westerns Jimmy Stewart and director Anthony Mann made together between 1950 and 1955.

The poster is via Heritage Auctions, which has a half-dozen pieces of Grinsson’s work up for bid over the next month, including his memorable art for Dr. No and The Lost Weekend.

The Shot Behind the Shot – Spike Lee’s patented “double dolly” from Malcolm X (1992)

Malcom X Spike Lee double dolly shot

Few directors boast an instantly recognizable signature shot, but Spike Lee and his “double dolly” are among that select company. The technique involves placing both the actor and the camera on dollies – allowing them to glide along the dolly track in unison. My favorite of these shots comes courtesy of cinematographer Ernest Dickerson in Malcom X (1992), as Denzel Washington (in the titular role) is propelled toward the fateful rally where Malcolm was assassinated in February of 1965. The scene is accompanied by Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. The Civil Rights anthem was released as the B-side of the single Shake only 11 days after Cooke himself was shot and killed under suspicious circumstances in December of 1964.

“I’d cut the sequence without (the Sam Cooke song) and then Spike brought the song in and we added the music and everything fell so gorgeously and emotionally together (that I didn’t adjust the edit). It floored us and spooked us. If you look at it, you’d definitely think I cut that sequence to that song, but I didn’t.” – Barry Alexander Brown, from a 2019 interview in Filmmaker Magazine

A montage of Lee’s double dolly shots…

Further reading…
Spike Lee breaks down his signature visual flourishes for the NY Times
The unlikely story of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come from The New Yorker

More from the Shot Behind the Shot series

Pic of the Day – On the set of Sunrise (1927), the first Oscar winner for cinematography

On the set of FW Murnau's Sunrise (1927)

Behind the scenes of F.W. Murnau’s 1927 silent classic Sunrise. The film took home three Oscars at the inaugural Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography, an honor shared by Karl Struss and Charles Rosher. Both men worked into the 1950s and earned an additional eight Oscar nominations between them. In the image above, via American Cinematographer, that’s Struss with the notebook walking down the steps next to Murnau. Rosher is riding the dolly with the camera.

Check out more Pics of the Day